Lent is once again upon us–along with the question, “What are you going to do for Lent?” The overall theme is that we will “eat less and exercise more.” We will cut down on our consumption of various things, and we will add spiritual disciplines.
Rule versus rules
The great danger of Lent is that we will observe it as a list of “rules” rather than as a “rule.” A rule is a standard or pattern for the life of prayer. Some sort of rule is necessary for progress in most areas of life. “Rules” tend to become laws that we keep on a merely human level, and they come to define our sense of righteousness. The difference between the two is highlighted by how we look at failure.
The purpose of failure
We may fail to observe our “rule” in some way for a few reasons. First, a given circumstance may call for relaxation. For example, I used to take communion to a older woman in her home. She always enjoyed having a glass of wine with me afterwards–a sort of social hour. I took her communion during Lent and afterwards she offered me a glass of wine. Even though my Lenten rule included abstinence from alcohol, I had the glass of wine with her because it meant a lot to her. A healthy rule is able to give way to the demands of agape.
Second, we may fail to keep our rule because of our human weakness. We may eat or consume the thing we said we wouldn’t because we “give in” in a weak moment. Our reaction to this is the litmus test of whether we keep a rule or rules. If we see our Lenten observance as a list of rules, we will view our weakness as a complete Lenten failure. We will feel guilty and be hard on ourselves. Our failure will likely become habitual and it may lead to us to give up our Lenten rule altogether.
If we observe a rule, we will see our failure as a revelation of a weakness that we need to work on. We will pray that God will give us more self-control in that area, treat the failure with grace and simply resume our rule the next day–without guilt or self-recrimination. The proper analogy here is to physical exercise. If we resolve in our workout to do four sets of forty pushups, and then discover as we exercise that we are only able to do one set of forty, one set of thirty and two sets of twenty, we did not fail. Rather, we discovered that we were not as strong as we thought we were. It would obviously be counterproductive to stop working out because of our failure. The workout is precisely the thing that will make us stronger. When failure leads us to give up our practice of fasting, it reveals a spiritual pride that is far more serious than the failure. Fasting is not about you; it is about what God is doing in you.
Third, we may fail because our rule is too ambitious. It is a common error for those who take on a program of exercise to try to do too much. Lent should challenge us but not crush us.
Factors to consider in establishing a rule
There are specific things each of us ought to consider when determining what our own rule will be. The first is our level of spiritual maturity. How long have you been a practicing Christian? How long have you practiced habitual spiritual disciplines? How many Lenten fasts have you observed? For example, I think this is the thirty-fourth year that I have observed Lent in some serious way. My approach to Lent will necessarily be different than it is for someone for whom this is the first or second practice of the season.
Second, our practice of Lent should be connected to the areas in which we need and want to experience spiritual growth. In what areas of life are you experiencing temptation? What bad habits are you stuck in? What appetites are you not able to control? We should practice doing without the things that we have trouble doing without. When this kind of fasting is combined with prayer that connects us with God and fills us with the Spirit in new ways, we will experience new freedom as a result of the fast. We should pray in particular for the virtues that stands opposite our most besetting temptations. It is less helpful to abstain from things that we have no trouble abstaining from. For example, some people have no trouble with self-control with regard to food. The fast of food is not a big deal for them. A fast of electronics or media might hit closer to home.
Electronics and media are the primary ways that our contemporary fast should be different from that of the ancients. They did not have electronics. Most of us must include this in our fast if our fast is to be meaningful. In general, younger people should focus on disconnecting from their cell phones and computers for specific and extended periods of time. The constant connection to electronic devices keeps us from listening to God and being present with others. Older people should focus on disconnecting from their T.V. I often hear from some how angry the news makes them. Lent is a good time to turn the news off, add times of prayer and silence and remember that Jesus is Lord. Most of us have way too much “noise” and distraction in our lives. To grow in the life of prayer we must necessarily learn to grow in the practice of stillness and silence.
Third, age and station in life should impact our observance of Lent. The fast of food should be relaxed with age and for reasons of health. The goal is to grow spiritually, not destroy yourself physically. Also the fast must take into account the demands of work and family. As we grow in our practice of spiritual disciplines, we will have less trouble combining fasting with work. But beware of trying to do too much too soon. Spiritual growth is a long term project. Stretch yourself, but don’t crush yourself.
The basic rule as a point of departure
Our basic rule is this. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of complete fasting from food. The daily fast is one full meal and two smaller portions. Additionally, we fast from pleasures like alcohol, tobacco and sweets. The calendar calls for “abstinence” on Wednesday and Fridays. This means no flesh meat. Our added prayer will begin with faithful Sunday participation in the Eucharist and, perhaps, the addition of a mid-week mass. We should be more disciplined in our praying of the daily offices, and we should include additional times of conversational prayer, meditation, or contemplation. This basic rule should be embraced and adjusted by each person in accordance with the discussion above.
Lent is an opportunity for spiritual growth. We enter into the wilderness with Jesus for forty days in order to create space in our lives for God to do new things. If we view Lent in the right way, it is an exciting season of opportunity that will prepare us for a joyous celebration of Easter.